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Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder Discovers Utopia Through Her World of Contrasts

Canadian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Serena Ryder is known for her vocal range and full voice. A natural talent, the six-time Juno winner has opened shows for Aerosmith and One Republic, and traveled with Melissa Etheridge on her 2011 tour across Canada.

Through hard work, networking, and creativity, she’s built a steady following in Canada with her catchy, genre-blending songs. Ryder relocated to Petersborough, Ontario, from the small town of Millbrook at age 18 to launch her career. Roughly nine years later she had her first hit “Weak in the Knees” (2007) and then won her first Juno Award: Best New Artist of the Year (2008).

Though people stateside might not yet know her name, they may have already heard her music. The catchy tune “Stompa” from her fifth album (Harmony, 2012) was featured on both Grey’s Anatomy and Hawaii Five-O. In 2013 Ryder performed the platinum recording on the Tonight Show.

serena-ryder-handNow a six-time Juno winner, she has sold more than one million singles from her releases. All the while, she has been a member of Local 149 (Toronto, ON). “Now, as an adult I’m seeing the importance of being a part of a larger community and learning from that community,” says the singer songwriter who will release her sixth album, Utopia, in early 2017 and launch an international tour.

As a child, Ryder’s mother would write out the lyrics to songs she wanted to learn. At age seven, her mother found Ryder a private music teacher who ended up becoming more of a collaborator. “I already knew a bunch of songs—Linda Ronstadt, Buddy Holly, Roger Miller. He would play them on piano and I would sing. I did my first gig when I was eight years old at the Legion hall in Millbrook.”

“I just knew I always wanted a life in music,” says Ryder, who began writing her own songs at age 11, after her step-father gave her a guitar.

“My biggest influence was definitely Roger Miller,” she recalls. “He was a quirky, amazing songwriter who kind of blurred the lines, but always made it fun and kind of silly. He didn’t take himself too seriously, which I loved,” she says.

She was further influenced by her parents’ record collection. “When I was about 13, I went into my basement and just started unearthing all this vinyl,” she says. There she discovered diverse artists—from Leonard Cohen to The Beatles. Their sounds now resonate in the music she creates.

Ryder says that the Canadian weather inspires her. “It’s the changing seasons that really make Canadian music and gives artists diverse emotional perspectives. The weather affects how you feel. When it’s freezing cold—minus 30 degrees Celsius—you don’t want to even walk to the corner store. Music becomes more insular—about your close friends and family. In the summertime it gets as hot as Los Angeles and you’re [music is] inspired by spring fever.”

At just 33, Serena Ryder says she has seen huge changes in the way technology helps her create music. She says that, with the past two albums, she’s had more creative freedom. Beginning with her fifth album, Harmony, she completely changed her writing process.

“It shocked me that I could go into a studio, write a song, and have the track finished in four hours. I used to write for a year or two, get all my songs compiled, find a producer, hire a band, and then we would get into the studio to learn the songs. Then, that would take a couple weeks,” she explains.

She also finds her new process more instantly gratifying. “I feel more free to write whatever I want because it doesn’t feel so painstaking and it doesn’t cost as much in terms of money and time,” she says.

“I made my last record mostly in my garage studio,” she explains. “My producer stayed in my basement. In the morning he went to the studio and got all the tracks ready and the sound running. I’d go out with my guitar and start riffing and write for a couple hours; then he’d produce it. By the end of a day, we had one song done, sometimes two. The main recording of the whole album took a couple weeks.”

Among the innovations it allows, is the ability to experiment with different instruments. She recorded some of her own harmonica and drum tracks. She also plays these instruments at her concerts. “Sometimes for an encore I’ll play drums and guitar and sing, all at the same time,” she says.

Ryder says the process of creating her sixth album, was even more unrestrained. “For Utopia I recorded stuff all over the world,” she says.

With all her success, Ryder is the first to admit she’s had struggles with depression and self-doubt along the way. She advises struggling musicians to look within themselves for answers. “The more you think about what you should be doing or how you should be doing it, the more complicated it gets.” She says that one of the best pieces of advice Ryder received came from veteran AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) musician Melissa Etheridge who told her simply, “Do what you love.”

The two met through Ryder’s manager, Sandy Pandya, and developed a friendship. When Etheridge was looking for a Canadian musician to pair up with for her Canadian tour, she turned to Ryder.

serena-ryder-sitting“Melissa Etheridge was an amazing person to be on tour with; she’s one of the coolest people I’ve met and she kind of took me under her wing,” says Ryder who was just 29 at the time. “She heard one of my songs, ‘Broken Heart Sun,’ which I’d written with one of her producers and she loved it.” Etheridge recorded the song as a duet with Ryder and released it in Canada before the tour began.” The pair also performed the song for the 2011 Juno Awards.

Of late, Ryder has been particularly prolific. She’s written about 80 tunes in the past three years. “I really love them all,” she adds, explaining how she followed her own advice. “I think it’s because I haven’t been taking myself so seriously, and I know that not everything I do matters as much as I think it does.”

She says that being true to yourself is important in songwriting. “Write from the place where you feel, even if you think it’s a bunch of shit!” she advises. “A year later you will look back at the songs you wrote and think they are amazing. I may not always be present with myself in some sort of happy state that we all want to be in, but I am honest.”

Coming to terms with her inner struggles is at the heart of the new album’s title, Utopia. The idea came from a First Nations story about two wolves. “There is a white wolf inside of you that is love and peace, happiness and joy, and it’s starving; there’s also a dark wolf inside you that is anger, jealousy, resentment, pain, and it’s starving too. They are battling each other. The wolf that wins is the one you feed.”

“Utopia, for me, is about marrying the light and the dark, and making a gray area—a balanced area. It’s about finding your own balance in life. Utopia is a place of absolute light and perfection,” she says.

This balancing act brings Ryder’s typical diversity to the album. “There are a lot of dark songs about dark feelings and dark places, like the song ‘Killing Time’—one of my favorites. It’s about wasting time and getting caught up in your head. Then there’s ‘Got Your Number,’ which is a single I wrote while jamming on the drums in my apartment. I was thinking about New Orleans, which I love, and people dancing in the street.”

“Then, there’s a song called ‘The First Time’; it’s about treating your relationships like you are meeting the people in your life for the first time. We all have history and we think we know our mom, sister, brother, but in actuality, we are always changing and every second is a new opportunity to see things differently.”

Serena Ryder is pre-releasing a few singles from Utopia over the next few months, with an album launch planned for early 2017. “We are doing a lot of intimate shows to test out some of the new stuff live to see what the industry thinks,” she explains.

Bonnie Raitt: Slide Guitar Legend Digs in Deep and Speaks Out About Fair Pay

_images_uploads_gallery_bonnieraitt-6by Matt MindlinBlues legend, accomplished guitarist, and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Bonnie Raitt was fortunate to have early opportunities to play with legends of the genre. Throughout her career, the singer songwriter has never been shy about standing up for causes she believes in. For the daughter of musicians John Raitt and Marge Goddard, both music and social activism are in her blood.

Though Raitt started guitar lessons at age eight, her real passion didn’t begin until a few years later when she first discovered slide guitar and the blues. “I didn’t even hear slide guitar on a blues record until I was about 13 or 14. It was a record on Vanguard called Blues at Newport ’63. I turned the record over and combed through the credits,” says Raitt. She soon soaked the label off a Coricidin cold medicine bottle, put it on her middle finger, and began teaching herself slide guitar.

Interested in culture and politics, Raitt began college at Harvard/Radcliffe studying social relations and African studies. Between classes she spent her time playing music at local coffee houses. About three years into her studies, she decided to pursue music full-time.

That was about the same time she joined Local 374 (Concord, NH). “You couldn’t make a record unless you were part of the union [in those days],” she says. “Musicians need to band together to make sure they are treated fairly. There’s power in the union and talking about issues that affect us all—collective bargaining for better deals, health insurance, making sure that people get paid, and tracking is really important.”

Learning from Legends

_images_uploads_gallery_bonnieraitt-5 Marina ChvezRaitt soon found herself opening up for some of her heroes: Fred McDowell, Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. It was a world that you might assume would be intimidating to a young woman, but she says it was just the opposite.

“When I met these older blues artists and they heard me play, they got a kick out of it, just like they were thrilled with all the people who played the blues,” she reflects. “Of course, if you were good they admired you, and if you weren’t good they probably just wrote you off; that was the same for any musician—you either had the chops or you didn’t.”

In fact, the blues musicians were so accepting to Raitt that she feels it gave her an advantage. “I was lucky to have my foot in the door a lot more than other female singers that would have loved to have had a career in the business. I played the blues and that was a little bit unusual. It set me apart,” she says.

She studied from her mentors—how the music fit together, the function of the rhythm section, and which guitar or piano parts were important. She was also schooled in some intangible qualities. “Aside from just soaking up the authenticity, deep groove, and passion,” Raitt says she studied the way band members interacted and the interplay of the rhythm sections.

“I watched how they worked the crowd and built the set with dramatic pauses, how it just came naturally and how incredibly erotic and playful [it was], and the heartache on the slow songs,” she says.

Digging in Deep

_images_uploads_gallery_bonnieraitt-1 by Marina ChavezAbout 45 years later and 20 albums into her own career, Raitt’s latest project, Dig in Deep, still reflects all the emotion and technique she’d absorbed decades earlier. “All the topics of the songs I picked because they mean something to me at this time,” she says. “Having it be the 20th album, I’ve covered a lot of heartbreak topics before. I worked very hard on having a new thing to say and a new way to say it.”

As usual she didn’t shy away from tough topics. For example, she says, “‘Comin’ Round Is Going Through’ was something that was really burning in me to express how frustrated I am with money and politics—how democracy has been hijacked by big business and corporations that are influencing our policy too much. Regardless of your political leanings, I think everybody agrees that the system is kind of broken.”

“I think we are citizens first and we are musicians, artists after that. If you feel strongly that something is wrong, you should speak out as a citizen. We have responsibility, if we have the luxury of being well-known and having a microphone, to at least be informed and passionate,” she says. “I think all of us should speak out if we care about something and we want to help.”

The album’s title takes a line from the lead song, “Unintended Consequence of Love.” “It seemed to describe how deep the band was digging into these grooves,” says Raitt. “There’s something about a unit that has been together this long that just digs deeper. It’s effortless, like an unspoken language amongst ourselves. We instinctively know where the others are going and consequently don’t have to plan the arrangements. It’s very organic.”

Band members include Local 47 members James “Hutch” Hutchinson (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), and Mike Finnigan (keyboards), and Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member George Marinelli (guitar). Raitt has played with Hutch and Fataar since the early ’80s. Marinelli has played guitar with Raitt on and off since 1993, and has been a permanent band member since 2000. And even though the newest member, Finnigan, has been with the band for just four years, Raitt has known him since the ’70s.

Going Indie

_images_uploads_gallery_BonnieRaitt_ConcreteStairs_Credit_MarinaChavezDig In Deep is the second album that Raitt has released on her own label, Redwing Records. The first, Slipstream, released after a seven-year recording hiatus, achieved success beyond what even Raitt had expected. It earned her a Grammy (her 10th) for Best Americana Album in 2012, and was one of the best selling independent albums for that year, selling more than a quarter million copies.

Raitt says that one of the keys to their successful label launch was the research and prep work they did. “We had been getting coached for several years before we suited up and started our own label. We watched a lot of people who have gone independent and learned by talking to them and finding out what we could do better and what they would have done differently. It is a strong learning curve, a lot of effort, but it’s really satisfying,” she concludes.

“It’s great to be able to own your own music and make a little more per CD, but it costs a lot to have the people to run your company. It’s a question of having a team willing to put in the savvy and expertise—accounting and reporting back. It’s a lot of work for the mighty group of three women running Redwing,” she continues.

“It’s exhilarating and it’s fun. The drawback [to independence] is the level of work. We have a large extended team, not just in our office—great people in my band and crew. I think the important thing is to pick people who are good to their families and good to work with. When you have quality people with integrity, then it’s a pleasure. You also have to be honest when it’s not working.”

This new world of music self-promotion, while satisfying, can present a challenge for new artists, admits Raitt. “Starting out, there are just thousands more out there competing for the same print or Internet interview time, or radio time. It’s tough to be independent, if you are not already famous. I feel sorry for people who are just starting up,” she says, advising, “You just have to stick with it. Take a look at other artists whose careers are going in the right direction and who seem to be handled smartly and try to do what they are doing.”

“But, man, it’s hard to keep up! Every time I think I just found my next 10 favorite new songwriters, a week later I’ll get another bunch. I’m so excited about the quality of music coming out—the avenues for new music and old music. The younger generations go across the musical aisles and get immediate links to people like Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and endless links to great jazz artists. I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to be a music fan or a music creator,” she says.

Earning a Living

_images_uploads_gallery_bonnieraitt-3 by Marina ChavezHowever, she cautions that in all this openness and availability, we need to continue to strive for fair wages for everyone involved in the industry. “More musicians I know are staying on the road because that’s the only place they can sell CDs—after gigs, spending an hour signing them,” she says. “But, there’s a lot of people involved with songwriting and production of a record; they create the music we all enjoy and they don’t have the luxury of going on the road, so they can’t make a living. At some point it’s important to understand that buying music is critcal … do not assume that people are playing for free.”

“We need to make sure all the journalists, engineers, and bus drivers can make a living continuing to put great music out,” she says. “We have to figure out a way for that to be more fair and to have the musicians sitting at the tables, making the deals for streaming.”

“Let’s talk about what is the fair amount to get paid and how we are going to track how many plays we got. There are people not as lucky as me to be able to go out on the road and make a living. Songwriters are getting cut because the industry is shrinking. I don’t want to see that happen,” she says.

“I’m glad I got my foot in the door and got famous before this happened, but I’m going to pull everybody along with me,” she continues. “It’s just too important to have a wide variety. That’s one of the reasons independents and Americana format and public radio stations are important—to get the fringe music out there. Not everybody is going to be a Bruno Mars, you know?”

Memorable Gigs

Show Me The Money: More Examples of Memorable Gigs

We’ve been talking about memorable gigs recently and I received an e-mail from Bill Yeager of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) in response to my column on interesting gigs. I thought I’d pass it along as a lesson to be learned about making sure you get paid. Sure you have a contract, and possibly an advance or deposit, but what happens when you play overtime? Do you put in an extra hour or two and just hope to get the extra revenue? Can you be sure the money will follow? Here’s what Yeager writes:

Years ago I was playing a gig with a 12-piece variety band at a big motel in Albuquerque for a veterinarians’ convention. Everyone had a great time; it was a good gig. But as we packed up to leave, one of the attendees who seemed to be a bit tipsy, started hollering about what a great band we were and urging everyone to put some money into a hat he was passing around to keep us there for another hour. He held $50 aloft and said he’d start it off right. He insisted everybody kick in and, if anyone was reluctant, he seemed tipsy enough to be excused for hassling the others and demanding big bills. It looked like that hat was going to have more money in it than what we were originally paid for the whole night! We began putting our stands back and getting our instruments out. 

At some point, we lost track of the guy collecting the money. Where’d he go?! Some of the musicians and a few of the conventioneers who’d noticed his absence began a search. But, too late! He was gone and so was the money! And that wasn’t the only problem. We had a room full of people who had contributed a lot of money to hear more music and they were getting mad because we hadn’t started playing. The smarter guys in the band, who figured out what would happen next, were already headed out the door—probably the same door the con man had disappeared through!

Maybe this is an isolated incident. Maybe not. But it is definitely something to be aware of.

Yeager also wrote about one of the weirder gigs he’s played. It didn’t involve overtime and he did get paid in full, but it was definitely strange. Yeager reports playing for a surgeons’ convention in a big room in one of the major hotels in New Orleans. He writes:

Our little traditional jazz band was set up in one corner of the large room. The other corners had either a bar or coffee service. The middle of the room was filled by a huge multi-level table of hors d’oeuvres, cheeses, fruits, and veggies, as well as ham, beef, turkey, etc. All the surgeons and their wives were milling about the room with a drink in one hand and food in the other. So far, standard convention fare, right? But here’s where it gets weird. They had combined their get-acquainted cocktail party with a demonstration of surgical equipment. And it included two actual operations! 

There was one on each side of the room with a doctor in a white smock at a surgical table. On each table, there was a heart and a pair of lungs! The heart was beating and the lungs were breathing! No, they weren’t human. They belonged to two pigs, but the pigs were not present. They were dead and gone—probably already on their way to someone’s breakfast table. But their hearts and lungs lived on—right there in the middle of the cocktail party! And the doctors operated on them! They were demonstrating how their equipment would keep the heart and lungs of a human patient functioning during an operation. 

The doc would make a few deft slashes with his scalpel, blood would squirt, and the heart or lungs would be taken out of the little circle of life that was the dead pigs’ organs. Meanwhile, machines would send oxygen flowing to the lungs, blood would circulate through clear plastic tubes. TV cameras mounted overhead projected all this onto big screens above the party. And the surgeons ate their food and drank their drinks, chatted with one another, and watched the operation, either live or on the screens, oblivious to how bizarre and surreal it seemed to us non-surgeons! And the band? We just did what we hired to do—we played happy little Dixieland tunes and tried not to look at the screens! 

Thanks Bill. Not all gigs are easy. You’re perfect proof!

If I could play an instrument…

By Brien Matson, board member, Local 677 (Honolulu, HI)

Editor’s Note: This article won an International Labor Communications Association 2006 award in the category of Best Feature Story (Local Unions). It is reprinted from the March 2005 edition of Keola O Na Mele, the official journal of Local 677.

“If I could play an instrument … I’d love to play for a couple of hours for $50. Heck, I’d even do it for free, I’d just be so happy to be playing music. You’re so lucky!”

Sound familiar? It’s the voice of the uninitiated non-musician, the fan, the admirer, the “Regular Josephine,” the “Regular Joe.” They’re right. We are lucky that we play music, but it’s bad luck that most people look at our profession in that way.

We are professionals. We chose music as a career, we work hard at it, and we want to make a decent living at it.

Here’s another familiar sound: “It’s just not in the budget. Look, you love to play, why don’t you just do it for that amount? It’s better than nothing…” Or these: “Take it or leave it;” “It’s great exposure.”

Sound painfully familiar? It’s the voice of the purchaser. The club owner, the restaurateur, the agent, the promoter. The sad thing is that the purchaser is in the music business to make money, but somehow, they don’t want to pay the people who make the music that makes the money.

This article is addressed to the “Regular Joes,” the “Regular Josephines,” and the purchasers. It’s also to us, the professionals. We need to think about this, and remind ourselves of how specialized what we do is, and set the bar a little higher in order to survive and–dare I say this?–prosper. Let’s go with the $50 gig. Most of us won’t take them, and people are surprised when we don’t. But let’s use that figure and do a little math to illustrate why we’re not happy to play a couple of hours for 50 bucks.

“Two hour gig, $50 each, cash. What’s wrong with that? That’s $25 an hour.” Hmmm-m-m-m. Let’s say the gig is from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., and let’s not take into consideration practicing or warming up.

Start with the drive to the gig. What? Everyone has to drive to work! True, so we won’t count the drive. Keep in mind that most people drive the distance, and then walk in to work five minutes early, grab a cup of coffee, and start working. We have to pack up the car with equipment (half an hour) and drive to the site. Unload the car, load the equipment onto the stage (half hour), go park the car (15 minutes), come back and set up (1 hour).

Let’s say that you timed it so you had 15 minutes before the gig starts. That’s two and a half hours. Add the gig, and you’ve got four and a half hours.

Now pack up. If you’re lucky, and nobody wants to talk to you after the gig, you can tear down in one hour, go get your car, load your equipment (another half hour), and drive home.

Nobody counts the drive home, but when you get home, you unpack your car, and load your stuff into the house, another half-hour, easy.

That’s six hours work, for $50 cash. More like $8.33 an hour, not $25 an hour.

Let’s look at making a living with that same amount. To make $1500 a month, you would have to do one $50 gig a day, every day of the month. If you did that every day, every month of the year, no vacation, no holidays, you would make about $18,000 per year, and that’s before taxes.

Paying federal and state income tax, general excise tax, and full social security tax (no employer contributions), knocks it down to about $11,880. By the way, you’re not eligible for unemployment or workers’ comp, but that’s okay, it’s not really work, right?

Let’s double that to $36,000 gross, which is $23,760 after taxes. For that, you would need to do two of those gigs a day. Two gigs taking up 6 hours each is 12 hours a day, every day of the year.

It’s a simplistic formula, but it makes a point. The point is, that’s why we’re not “happy to play for a couple of hours for $50,” even though we are lucky to be able to play music.

The next time someone says something like the opening line of this article to you, turn it around. Say: “If I could be a dentist, I’d love to do it for $8.33 an hour. I’d just be so happy to be able to practice dentistry. You’re so lucky!” I’m sure the reply would be: “What do you mean, lucky? I studied for years, and I still study. I worked long, hard hours to perfect my craft, and still do. My equipment cost me an arm and a leg, and it’s very specialized work. I’m a professional!”

Just smile and say, “Me, too.”